I can't think of a more fun place in the world to host an international dressage and jumping show than Las Vegas, Nevada. Well from a purely selfish spectator point of view anyhow. Not only can you see your favourite horses and riders in one spot, you can also party, shop, explore, do the Grand Canyon, find your soul mate, get married by Elvis and play the pokies all in one convenient location.
I have been over once before for the Vegas World Cup experience, and when I saw it advertised again last year I put out feelers for a few partners in crime to come on the next adventure with me. I thought I had it sorted when one police friend and one military mate said they could be my wing-women, but sadly they ended up on other missions. Instead my intrepid travelling mate Michelle (who has done a few tour of duties with me before to Spain and Portugal and saved my life on more than one occasion) decided to tag along. Joining her would be another friend Tracy whose surname shall remain anonymous as she has a husband and kids to think about. And finally Melanie, and ex-pat Kiwi living stateside these days who despite being only semi-conscious on the trip due to a nasty bought of pneumonia, was the fourth member of the Vegas gang. Our humble abode for the week was the MGM Grand - home of both Boxing and Bullriding in Las Vegas. Except this particular week it was home to peculiar men in white tights with knee high socks.
Shopping in Las Vegas is just brilliant - all the high end stores are there in force - Prada, Burberry, Coach etc. But for those of us with slightly less expensive tastes there are two lots of outlet shopping malls, one at the north end if the strip, the other at the south end. The day we arrived it was decided to give our visa cards a work-out at these shops and damage we did do! Shoes, handbags, shirts and tops, jewellery, you name it I am sure we bought it. Bargains to be had everywhere!
Armed with new outfits and blister-inducing new shoes it was time for a first look at the dressage and jumping horses. We had a ticket into the warm-up day at Thomas and Mack Centre. Here we got to see the jumping guys getting to jump a short course in the arena in their polo shirts. Then the dressage horses came out and had 15 minutes per pair to prepare for the Grand Prix to be held the next day. The crowd waited in baited breath for the horse they had all come to see, and were not disappointed when Valegro the wonder-horse strutted out onto the arena. With Charlotte dressed in a simple T Shirt, Valegro just danced his way around the arena. The most spectacular part for me was a full powered extended canter across the diagonal into a sublime transition to walk, the likes of which I never thought possible. Those guys are a freakish combination and surely are unbeatable for the foreseeable future. One Russian horse took my eye that day - Mister X - what a super horse, well ridden and with great piaffe and passage. He was going to be my one-to-watch for the tournament. Isabell seemed to have a very hard time on El Santo who was not happy and Hans Peter's Glock's Flirt was also far from happy on the warm-up day. But then - it's just the warm-up!
One of the things on my must-do list when visiting Las Vegas is to go to one of their three gun ranges and shoot a few rounds. Last time it was there I honed my AK47 skills - yanno - just on case I ever get a call up due to an alien invasion of epic proportions. Well this time I thought a hand gun would be the go - so with the excitement and trepidation of someone who has watched far too may cop movies - a Glock 19 became me new friend. I totally wasted the poor dude who was my target - the first shot was a little off when I realised I had my wrong eye closed, then after that his number was up. I had a nice tight pattern around the cardiac area - he didn't stand a chance. As if that wasn't enough I topped him off with 20 rounds of an Uzi semi-auto machine gun which I will admit was a little harder to be accurate on. I think my instructor dude was getting a little wary of my abilities by this time and decided it was time to stop before the US Army came to enlist me as a Sniper. My partner in crime, Tracy (Michelle is a) scared of guns and b) needed to stay behind the glass sipping her vodka slushie) joined in the target practice with great gusto. Fortunately for her target Tracy is more of a shoot to scare off kind of a gal, so other than one shot directly into her target's mouth area - I think he may have survived!
Las Vegas for me isn't at all about the gambling. It's about the shows. On this trip we didn't have many nights free to see these shows as the showjumping was on, but on our free nights we tried to make the most of it all. All four of us went to see the Cirque du Soleil show Ka which plays in our hotel the MGM. Whilst each cirque show is completely different, they all have in common a great storyline, magic costumes, incredible feats of human acrobatics and contortions and superb music. Some of the acrobatics were incredible - even death defying. In fact it was during this very show in 2013 that a talented gymnast met her death when she fell from a vertical wall into a pit below.
Another show on my must-do-in-Vegas list was the 50 Shades of Grey parody. For anyone who has read the books and seen the movie (And I know there are a lot of you!) this cabaret show is a must see. We travelled in style to it in a limo-SUV (taxi queue was too long) and managed to sneak our drinks in under our jackets. It's in a really small room, so a limited audience and it was laughs a plenty! Christian Grey was ummmmm NOT hot. He was a middle aged overweight guy in a wresting outfit with much gut on display - the characters reading the book were hilarious and Anastasia was great too. Definitely full of laughs and sexual innuendo, and not a set of handcuffs in site if you are faint-hearted. A great night out for the girls!
Eating out in Las Vegas is never a problem - every casino has a buffet - I made a special point of getting the girls down to the buffet at Paris one night - I love that where you are seated on what looks like the streets of Paris with permanent twilight going on. The food wasn't as good as I had remembered it though, and we found a better buffet in Planet Hollywood "The Spice Bazaar" a few nights later. The crawfish pasta dish was to die for. In fact it nearly killed us! And if you are a fan of Mexican - there is plenty in Vegas for you too! I think if we stayed much longer we may have turned into tacos with salsa and a guacamole side. One of our best nights out was at BURGR - a burger restaurant owned by famous celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey. The sweet potato fries doused in icing sugar were to die for...
Walking out of diner one night we walked straight into a bar in Planet Hollywood with a great covers band called Evenflow. We sat and listened a while, until Michelle (our man-magnet) drew in a lovely chap who asked her to dance. Soon we were with his mates having more drinks and doing as much as we could for US-Kiwi relations. These boys were military. Airforce to be exact. Fighter pilots to be more specific. So we shared phone pics of our lives - there's of their jets and ours of idyllic NZ scenes such as the surf break in Raglan. I bought up the whole Nuclear Free NZ thing only to be told I pronounce Nuc-le-ar wrong. Apparently its Nuc-lare or some such thing - I said who cares, your ships still can't come visit. Then we all danced some more before feigning a toilet break to beat a hasty retreat to our hotel to avoid being dragged back to the barracks some 20miles out of town.
One of the meanest things you can ever do to close friends is make them go on thrill rides that they are not comfortable doing. Somehow though, Tracy who is dead afraid of heights lost some bet that she wasn't forced to take and so we made our way down to the Stratosphere to try out the biggest thrill rides in Vegas / the world. Picture the sky tower only much taller. Then imagine three rides at the very top of it. One shoots you even further up into space, one shoots you off the edge and leaves you teetering there, and the other one they tell you is the "tamest" (insert Tui Caption) ride - even though it is named quite aptly Insanity, hangs a group of you over the edge of the building and proceeds to spin you around off the edge, first on a horizontal plane, then much worsely (I think I just made that word up!) onto a more vertical plane. If poor Tracy is afraid of heights then Michelle is not a lot better - I myself am only human so too was shit-scared! I can't believe my memory wasn't etched with the fear from the last time I took that god-dammed ride - its friggin' awful! And for my height phobic friends it was shear hell. There is this term used in both human and horse psychology called "Flooding" where you expose the human / horse to prolonged periods of whatever they fear in order for the fear or phobia to subside - it can however have major welfare implications so I apologise in retrospect to their families and loved ones back home who need to live with the repercussions of this ride!
Back to the horse part. The showjumping was incredible - incredible that any horse could jump around a track like that and come out the other side. A ton of us Kiwi's all sat together to cheer on Katie Lawrie as she piloted Kiwi Ironmark around the toughest tracks of his life. From memory she had a rail down on the first night and on the second night she was jumping clear until the treble combination which nearly whipped out the whole field. She made it through on the second attempt but then retired before the last fence. We thought we had seen the last of her, but thankfully she decided to start again the following night in the Canadian Pacific Grand Prix of Las Vegas. We were on the edge of our seats once more, willing both horse and rider over every fence, our NZ flags clutched tightly in our fists. She went clear, and once again in the most exciting jump off ever - she had done it and we were all there to celebrate the victory. It was such a poignant occasion as Melanie Purcell the old owner and rider of this wonderful horse had died a few short years ago after a brave battle with cancer. She had always dreamed big with this horse and now with her friend Katie at the helm it all fell into place. She had an angel riding with her that night that is for sure.
The dressage was spectacular - Velegro was unbeatable - like seriously unbeatable and rightly so - but I can't help thinking it's all a bit unfair - a bit like the kid at the local gymkhana with the pony so flash nobody can beat her - so she wins and wins and wins. Still it's like poetry in motion and was super to see her live again. I won't bore you with the details of all the others but suffice to say there was some amazing horses and riders on display - have a look at the rides on you tube when you can - absolute bliss!
And of course what horse show would be complete without the trade stands? Vegas had so many top brands there for sale, but sadly not ON SALE. I still availed myself of a new tail coat and we wanted to take the cute Samshield man home. My great friend Reisa from Dressagetrainingonline.com had a super trade stand there signing people up to her website. As a promotion she also had a mechanical horse on display which uses the latest technology to help riders sit in correct balance as it walks, trots and canters through dressage tests. I was encouraged to have a go, but I was not looking forward to having my butt critiqued by a machine so I said I would pass. Instead I jumped on late one night after a few wines and did a virtual XC course, jump saddle and all! Unfortunately I had my converse sneakers on and because the horse was a bit slow off the floor and behind my leg into and after every fence, I ended up wearing a huge hole in the side of my foot from urging him on. A blister of epic proportions followed and cursed me for the entire week that it took to heal.
It was super to have the NZ TV channel Equestrian Live there filming the action for those back home. The head honcho Nik gave me a wee interview in one of the entertaining interludes of the dressage - I am sure the crowd sitting around me where thinking "who the hell is she?!" but it was all good fun and I know the folks back home enjoyed the behind the scenes footage, particularly of Katie's win.
Well I think that's about all I remember from the trip - other than spending nearly every 2-3am stint at my favorite Irish bar in the New York New York Casino Complex. It's called Nine Fine Irishmen and there is always a great live band and plenty of craic to be had. The best night there was when two drunken lads from County Cork decided to invoke a wedding with a lovely couple from the US of A. We couldn't believe our luck, being invited as guests of honour for 3am nuptials at the other end of the Strip. What happened next? Well that's a whole nother story....